Sunday, March 19, 2006

The Best Picture of 2005

Hollywood made one really outstanding film in 2005. Problem is, nobody in Hollywood could tell you what that film is. Yes, they could tell you who won the award for Best Picture. But that's not the same thing.
The best picture of 2005 is a film about a nearly-forgotten rescue mission which took place in a small corner of a great war in the middle of the last century. Despite the film’s superb realism, accuracy, and pacing, and despite – or perhaps because of – its understated pro-American message, this film was completely ignored by the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences at their annual awards ceremony, better known as "The Oscars".
The film is called "The Great Raid", and it depicts a coordinated assault conducted by a company of U.S. Army Rangers as well as Filipino militia against a Japanese POW camp for the purpose of freeing more than five hundred Americans who had survived the Bataan Death March three years before. The rescue of the prisoners held captive at Camp Cabanatuan in the Philippines saved them from almost certain death at the hands of their sadistic captors.
I suppose I should stop at this point and note that "Crash", the film that won the Best Picture award, had an interesting if somewhat gimmicky plot, had all the production values of a made-for-television movie, and was notable for an astonishing, utterly jaw-dropping coincidence at the high point of the drama – a coincidence that nobody could possibly believe.
The other four nominees for the Best Picture award – at least in the eyes of the academy – had even less to recommend them.
I should note that some members of the film community made the point that the emphasis this year was on – and here I paraphrase – "less commercial, more serious movies which commented on the state of the world." Consequently, two very popular box office money-makers having to do with out-of-control monsters and the women who loved them – films which, in a less politicized year, would have easily garnered nominations for Best Picture – this year did not, although "King Kong" did win for Art Direction and Reese Witherspoon won Best Actress for "Walk the Line".
Three of the films favored by the academy with major nominations stand out as being highly political in theme:
"Munich" (Best Picture, Directing nominations). The point of this film is that revenge and retribution are, if not immoral, at least unproductive. The targets of this message are the United States and Israel, which have of late been exhibiting unhealthy tendencies toward self-defense and survival.
"The Constant Gardener" (Best Supporting Actress winner). The message here is that large American drug companies are inherently evil. Large American drug companies are, of course, a metaphor for capitalism and American democracy. I have no idea what a "constant gardener" is a metaphor for, although I do enjoy saying "metaphor for."
"Syriana" (Best Actor winner). This anti-American story is so convoluted and twisted that I should like to recommend a Special Academy Award For Original Ability To Explain the Plot of "Syriana" Without Referring to Notes. In effect, the story is a metaphor in its own right, which is to say, if you distend and distort the truth severely enough, you will come up with a film which condemns the United States.
I guess you could say that "Capote" and "Brokeback Mountain" are 'political' simply by the fact that they portray gays sympathetically – not that there’s anything wrong with that! – but they aren’t quite as topically relevant as the other films in that apparently no one has found an angle by which to blame the U.S. government for minority sexual orientation.
And now a few words about the best picture of 2005, and its relevance to the current state of the world.
In 1945 the world was in a hell of a mess. The only good thing about it was that it was the last year of a global conflict which had started in Manchuria nine years earlier and which would cost at least fifty million lives, both military and civilian.
The unwillingness of Britain and France to take the fight to Germany in 1938, when they might have stopped a worldwide conflagration, and the unwillingness of a majority of Americans to allow its government to join the fight until the world was nearly overrun and the Japanese were killing Americans on home soil meant that America got into the war woefully lagging in manpower and industrial capacity. Our sea lanes were blocked, and we were forced to dig our enemies out of their heavily entrenched positions all around the world – from Normandy to North Africa to far-flung islands in the South Pacific.
Which brings us to the scene of the film. Right after Pearl Harbor, thousands of Americans trapped in the Phillippines had to be written off – left to survive as best they could until an American armada could come to their rescue.
Three years later, when that armada – commanded by General Douglas MacArthur and Admiral Chester Nimitz – did come, tens of thousands of Americans abandoned in the Phillippines had already died of disease or been killed by the Japanese. But of course they were also the victims of a political decision: by recognizing that the United States did not have the resources to attend to the Pacific Theater of Operations until Germany had been dealt with, President Roosevelt had been forced to consign those thousands in the Phillippines to the vagaries of fate. Some survived in POW camps, some were shipped off to Japanese labor camps, some died in transportation, and some were never accounted for.
Historians who specialize in the Second World War can point to any number of dates at which a muscular intervention by the United States and its allies might have – no, not ‘might have’ but ‘would have’ – turned the tide of history. Had Hitler been stopped after entering the Sudetenland, or even as he was annexing Czechoslavakia, his appetite for conquest might have been sated. No subsequent betrayal and invasion of the Soviet Union, perhaps, and with the Soviet Union still viable, there might have been more reluctance on the part of the Empire of Japan to conquer one seventh of the world.
Instead of fifty million casualties, perhaps a tiny fraction of that. Instead of World War Two, "The Battle of the Sudetenland", or "The Prague Intervention."
All this is speculation, of course. But "The Great Raid" illustrates the folly of doing nothing, of letting events get out of hand, of letting the enemy overrun the world until the point comes at which they feel free to attack whenever and wherever they like. The movie drives home the point that every day that we let the enemy build his strength is another day in which we give up future advantages. "The Great Raid" makes the point that one casualty incurred today is one hundred lives saved tomorrow. "The Great Raid" shows us not ‘what might have been’ but ‘what didn’t have to happen’.
Of course, the actors don’t make these points in their lines of dialogue, and there is little of an ideological nature in the script. To see these perspectives, you have to view the film through the lens of history, and a study of history tells us that war on such a vast scale might have been prevented – not by protests or by demonstrations, but by taking the fight to the enemy early in the game.
Anti-American protestors, both here and abroad, are an interesting bunch: they take no personal risk and yet give themselves credit for standing up for "morality". Someone should explain to them that a war can be supremely moral if it prevents a much larger one.
In this sense, then, "The Great Raid" is the most politically relevant of all of the films produced in 2005. As noted above, Hollywood can’t seem to recognize its best work for what it is, and that’s unfortunate. Nor can the reviewers see it, apparently. The reviewer at my local newspaper mused that he found it "hard to imagine why anyone would" want to see this movie. He preferred "Syriana". I guess he likes his stories incomprehensible.
It is understood that the academy voters have the right to give their awards to whomever they please, for whatever reason they like. No one can take that away from them. But what they cannot do is immortalize a mediocre film (Unforgiven, Shakespeare in Love) with their top awards, nor can they deny immortality to those films which deserve it (The Wizard of Oz.)
In the final analysis, it is the movie-watchers who determine what will last and what will not. "The Great Raid" is not one of the all-time great films but, in a year of much-lauded films with overtly political messages, this one projects a timeless lesson which can be heard even above the din of battle.
An Anti-Chomsky article published by John Williamson on The Anti-Chomskyan Redoubt.